Little is known about Ben Weatherill’s brand-new play. “We can’t tell you the plot! Then you won’t come and see it anymore,” pouts Sir Ian McKellen. “Can’t let the dog out of the bag,” agrees Roger Allam. Not to worry, there’s much to talk about.
Frank and Percy is a poignant and witty take on the unexpected relationship that blossoms between two men. Allam is Frank, a widower and retired schoolteacher and owner of the 7-year-old spaniel named Toffee. McKellen is Percy, an elderly academic who writes about climate change. He lives on his own with his 3-year-old labrador, Bruno. The two meet while walking their dogs on Hampstead Heath in London. They start talking about their pets, the weather and eventually, each other.
Old friends, Allam and McKellen met in the 80s at the Royal Shakespeare Company. However, they didn’t work together back then. “I always admired Roger from afar. Rather fancied him, actually. It’s a dream come true, working with him again,” teases McKellen. “I’m feeling triggered, now,” deadpans Allam. They have worked together previously of course, in the acclaimed pantomime Aladdin at The Old Vic in 2004-2005. Both recall that sharing a dressing room was almost more fun than being on stage. “Sharing was lovely (…). But of course, because he (McKellen) was playing Widow Twanky, he had the most astounding amount of costumes, hats, jewellery, everything. It was quite a big dressing room. But I was sort of shrunk in the corner!” Allam laughs. “We had a lovely time, back together. And with the same director.”
Indeed, it was director Shaun Mathias who shared the script with McKellen first. “When Shaun sends me a script, I drop everything and read it.” McKellen almost immediately started to read the lines out loud to decide which character he’d like to play. Likewise, Allam only needed to read a few pages before joining in — not only because it was an enchanting story but also “an excuse to be in a room with Ian and Shaun again.”
There’s lots of laughter during rehearsals, which are going well. McKellen explains, “We know each other’s idiosyncrasies, and we like them. For me, work with actors that are at least as good as you, preferably more accomplished, and he (points at Allam) is one of those. If anything went wrong, I’d feel safe.” Allam agrees, “You want to be with the best possible people (points unsubtly back at McKellen) and someone you really love, or like. That just helps everything along.” Frank and Percy is a two-hander, therefore a good relationship and understanding is important as there isn’t anyone else in the play. Even their loyal dogs are only present in the actors’ imagination. “It’s unadulterated us,” jokes Allam.
Frank and Percy is a light-hearted comedy, filled with banter, sometimes sentimental and romantic as the lonely men have their ups and downs. “You get really involved with the characters. And they get to know each other very well. There’s a bed on the stage at one point, let’s leave it at that — and it’s got a happy ending.” And if this was not enough to persuade, let’s end on a minor spoiler: both Allam and McKellen will carry a tune.